Joining two titans of the miniseries -- Peter Strauss ("Rich Man, Poor Man," "Masada") and Rachel Ward ("The Thorn Birds") -- in one longform drama is an inspired idea that doesn't quite pay off in "Seasons of Love," a vaguely titled, shambling epic of the American pioneer spirit.
Joining two titans of the miniseries — Peter Strauss (“Rich Man, Poor Man,” “Masada”) and Rachel Ward (“The Thorn Birds”) — in one longform drama is an inspired idea that doesn’t quite pay off in “Seasons of Love,” a vaguely titled, shambling epic of the American pioneer spirit. Part 1, with a more focused story, fares better than the meandering Part 2, which suffers from an awkward, almost nonexistent transition from its predecessor, as well as uninspired plotting of a soap-operatic nature. By the end, production feels less epic than simply long.
Based on the George Dell novel “The Earth Abideth,” the film stars Strauss as Thomas Linthorne, an aspiring farmer in 1866 Ohio with a parcel of land and a job as a traveling salesman to pay it off. His reconnoiterings bring him to the home of a disagreeable drunk, albeit one with lovely kin — Kate (Ward), who brushes off his abusiveness. Linthorne immediately whisks her away from her dreary life and makes her his bride.
After this clunky, accelerated opening, the film finds its footing, with a charming marriage scene and Linthorne then revealing his dilapidated farm to a skeptical but adoring Kate, followed by the introduction of Spence (Rip Torn), a friendly neighbor willing to help out as he’s able. Linthorne and Kate set right off to create a brood of Linthornes, the adult fates of which are hinted at in Part 1.
In general, the film handles its smaller, folks-just-being-folks scenes far better than it does scenes with outright villainy or melodrama. Linthorne is considered a free spirit by the community, while Kate seeks out spiritual guidance. Poignancy comes courtesy of Hume Cronyn as an elderly neighbor Linthorne befriends — some scenes could slide from pathos into bathos but for Cronyn’s dignified commitment to his monologues. Outright villainy comes in the form of Gorm Schrader (John Finn), a squatter on a nearby parcel of land who threatens Linthorne and his family and is, in general, plumb no good; Linthorne unwisely escalates this duel until Schrader forces a showdown.
Years pass, and Part 1 concludes with Linthorne betraying his wife, thanks to a new neighbor (Chandra West, whose performance is little more than an unsubtle, come-hither gaze). It doesn’t end well, with Kate standing with the children, bellowing at Linthorne, “I wanted my babies to see their father with his whore!”
How all this is resolved, however, isn’t resolved. Part 2 picks up 12 years later, with a couple of passing references to Linthorne’s infidelity and his unexplained conversion to staunch conservatism. Linthorne disapproves of his oldest son’s beau, Kate of her daughter’s paramour, and the children bristle at their parents’ hardheadedness. Their rebellion is nothing compared to the couple’s youngest child, who falls far from grace in a prosaic (and, largely, offscreen) fashion.
During a tent revival, there’s a minor showdown between Linthorne and the drunkard he cuckolded (12 years late in coming). Only at this point does Linthorne feel responsible for the child he had with his mistress. Nothing in Part 2 feels coiled to any narrative throughline — things just happen, and then other events occur, and so on until the 20th century comes along and the timeslot has been filled. For example, Torn’s character, Spence, isn’t written out of the script, he just quits showing up.
If the filmmakers thought that they had grabbed an audience with the first segment so viewers would care about these characters in Part 2, it’s a grave miscalculation. For while Part 1 has moments, ending it with Linthorne’s infidelity means there are few sympathetic characters to follow in Part 2. The final scene, drawing the Linthornes’ saga to a close, ends with an inappropriate laugh as son tells father, “I guess I love you, too, Dad.”
As to be expected, Strauss and Ward can carry the weight of this production on their backs (Ward’s Aussie accent crops up more than occasionally); trouble is, too often they’re forced to bear this burden. Torn and Cronyn lend good work in the brief time they’re onscreen, but a number of the other roles are almost amateurishly played.
Tech credits, save the odd, distracting sprouting of fake whiskers, are solid. Ron Orieux’s handsome lensing and Peter Breiner’s emotional score imbue this mini with the aura of a quality production, even when the writing suggests otherwise.